Letters from the Front
Romans 8:31-35; John 15:9-17
Letters from the Front
D. A. Cameron Reid was a British Army Chaplain in the First World War. In a letter back to the Principal Chaplain, in July 1915, he wrote:
My first Sunday here we landed, and soon after came under fire, which went on for fourteen hours without stopping… I did my best to help the wounded, and put in a number of first dressings, some on very ghastly wounds.
Another chaplain, S. G. Gilchrist, wrote:
We have had two long marches, covering between 14 and 16 miles a day, over roads which were weary quagmires of squelching mud. In the mud and on the rough cobblestones their feet soon gave way; the second may’s march was rather a pitiful business. A good many “fell out”, utterly done. A French interpreter died on the roadside of exhaustion. It rained in torrents, and an icy wind blew unceasingly. On the bleakest spot of all the route we were halted for four hours without shelter or food, because the billets we were to occupy could not be vacated by the troops until dark.
A third, J Kirk, wrote of the place he was serving:
I cannot describe the desolation of that forward, newly-won region. Every village had been smashed to brickdust and matchwood. I do not think that anything stands more than a foot above the ground except the machine-gun buildings of concrete which the enemy had built. It is all very ghastly.
Today, some hundred years from the war in which these chaplains served, we gather in remembrance. We remember the men and women who died in that war, and in all subsequent wars and conflicts. We have heard letters from the front from the Dardanelles. But we could have heard them from Normandy, from North Africa, from Moscow, from Vietnam, from the Falklands, from Kosovo, from Basra in Iraq, from Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Human society seems unable to live without a front line, somewhere, places of risk and danger, of the threat of injury, of suffering and untimely death.
I don’t think it is too far-fetched to see the New Testament documents, or at least some of them, as letters from the front. Many indeed are letters – and we heard earlier from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He is writing to Christian sisters and brothers in Rome in the early years of the Christian faith. It is not safe to be a follower of Jesus Christ: it is an era of martyrdom. And so Paul asks, only half-rhetorically,
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
For Paul then, the way of Christ is a battle-zone, in which we encounter hazards to our comfort, our safety, and our very life. How then shall we defend ourselves? Surely by trusting in God, and Paul does write, If God is for us, who is against us? But on its own that question may leave a queasy feeling. Is God only on our side? What about the other side? And is life really about God’s people against God’s enemies? But Paul does not leave this question hanging – he explores how God is for us, what his tactics are: He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?
This is a strategy then not of military victory but giving up, not of attacking but being taken, not of killing but being killed. It recalls the words of Jesus to his disciples which were read earlier, and which are so often found on War Memorials:
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Let us spend a little time then exploring these letters from the front of human life.